In July 2016, Callum Tarren was running down a sodden hillside away from the North Korean border. After a series of flights cancelled by the Chinese military, sleepless nights on airport floors, and unsteady beds in bug-riven hotels, now he was hurtling away from Heaven Lake before the monsoon could sweep in.
It was Tarren’s sixth event in seven weeks. His 8,300th kilometre travelled in 53 days since exchanging odd-jobbing around Yorkshire for a one-way ticket and train-hopping around China’s 23 provinces in pursuit of one day winning a position on the PGA Tour.
The long-haul trip from Darlington to Kunming had eaten up all of the 28-year-old’s savings, and he was already relying on handouts from family and friends to find accommodation and food before his first season on the China Tour – a subsidiary of the premier PGA and European circuits – began.
But there in the shadows of Jilin’s snow-capped mountains, which shield the border’s outpost turrets from view, Tarren tied for 40th place at the Ping An Private Bank Wanda Open. He earned himself a small sliver of the $193,500 prize purse which would set him up for three years as England’s most nomadic golfer, travelling between Shanghai and Central America via County Durham.
“It was a big risk,” he says. ”I don’t come from a rich family and I didn’t have much in my bank. Even if I qualified I didn’t know if I was going to be able to afford to play. You have tough times along the way. You’re spending all this money on flights, accommodation and you think what am I doing? I’m actually paying to go to work. I know guys whose credit cards are maxed at £20,000 minus.
“There’s times where you had to stay in not very nice places. Where there’s bugs and things running around. Where it’s very unclean, showers leaking and spraying all over, beds are very uncomfortable and you wake up with bites all over you. I’ve slept on airport floors. That’s just part of the parcel.”
Tarren and Michael Skelton were the first English golfers to play on the China Tour. “Living in each other’s pockets,” they shared flights, trains, buses, hotel rooms, even beds in crummy hotels to halve costs.
Seen as an easier route to golf’s lucrative tours, many Americans and Australasians attempted stints in China, seeing it as a soft touch. But after finding themselves stranded in small airports attempting to negotiate the “brick wall” of rearranging a flight which has inexplicably disappeared from the departures list and playing games of Guess Who while eating from menus with only pictures of barely-discernible rice bowls, the majority found they couldn’t cope.
“Back in 2016, there was only two of us” Tarren says. ”You get a lot of golfers who go ‘Oh I’m going to do that China Tour’ but when it comes down to it, they don’t like getting too far out of their comfort zone and people shy away.
“It’s a different culture, it’s a different way of life. The food’s obviously very different, flights get cancelled for no reason, sometimes they say it’s because of the military, other times it’s mixed weather, thunderstorms. It’s not ideal. I wouldn’t say I enjoy being on fifteen-hour flights and travelling for days at a time.
“The events are all over China, all over the place. We’re out in the sticks, in the middle of nowhere next to a power station and then there’s this awesome golf course. These huge clubhouses with spas in the changing rooms and hotel rooms. They’re like resorts with houses built alongside them but they’re usually empty. They’re like empty cities next to the rural villages. [The villages] are just poverty. It’s crazy.”
Tarren didn’t win an event in his first year in China, but his consistent finishes saw him climb to eighth in the Order of Merit, easing away his nagging financial insecurities. There was more time to sightsee, to seek out westernised restaurants, and the results earned Tarren partial entry onto the Latinoamérica Tour – another PGA-run lower-level tour which skips between country clubs in Central and South America.
So Tarren traded the smog of Shanghai for swashbuckling in the sands of the Caribbean in the spring of 2017, arriving in Guatemala en route to La Reunion Golf Resort at the base of Volcan de Fuego. “It was paradise,” he says, reminiscing about scaling the volcano and peeping at its crater which spat specs of lava and plumes of smoke.
“It was an amazing resort, but it’s not even there anymore. The volcano erupted, it killed hundreds of people and completely flattened the whole resort. To think we climbed that volcano. That’s quite crazy.”
Tarren only played 18 holes that week. The tournament was cut short by Guatemala’s gale force winds so he decided to make the short trip to San Pedro Sula in neighbouring northwestern Honduras – the world’s most dangerous city outside of war zones, where morticians work 24 hours a day.
“I didn’t know what to expect in Honduras,” Tarren says. “I got told that before we went [that San Pedro Sula was really dangerous], but I didn’t see anything that made be like ‘Oh God’. But the Latinoamérica goes to some dangerous places in South America: Colombia, Panama, Peru. Like China, there’s some very poor places.
“We heard stories from the year before when the guys were travelling from the airport on the bus in Honduras, they got stopped by two young kids holding AK-47s and demanded $5 off every person on the bus…I’d have given them $10.”
So Tarren returned to China for a second season imagining it might even seem comparatively serene, only to find that President Xi had launched a vendetta against golf and was closing hundreds of country clubs causing organisers to scramble to place events before fairways were butchered and bulldozed – such as was the fate met by the vantage point overlooking North Korea which had kept Tarren afloat.
In the 2017 season, Tarren climbed five places to third in the Order of Merit and won his first title. Had the China Series’ deal with the PGA not ended the previous year, Tarren would have won a coveted place on the United States’ lucrative Web.com Tour, which developing players use as a springboard for the main PGA competition in America. Instead, he returned east for another year.
“If I hadn’t performed how I had, would I have gone back to China every year?” he asks rhetorically. “No, probably not. But I knew what it had to offer so I thought I might as well continue down that avenue.”
The China Tour was realigned with the PGA for the 2018 season and Tarren went into the final event of this year’s season last month knowing a win would finally secure him his overdue ticket to the US.
Trailing on Sunday at Clearwater Bay in Hong Kong, Tarren shot an 8-under par 62 – one shy of the course record – yet having walked off the 18th green with a second-place finish and believing another year had passed him by, Tarren was told that the only man ahead of him in the Order of Merit standings had bogeyed the 18th hole, meaning he clinched first spot and a place on the Web.com Tour.
“Someone came over to me and said you’ve pipped him. I said what do you mean and he told me I’d won the Order of Merit. I didn’t even understand what had happened. I was overwhelmed. Everyone had to explain it to me.”
Tarren was swiftly robed in a red velvet winner’s jacket and received an assortment of glass and temple-shaped trophies and placards. It was the first time his long-term girlfriend, who had stayed with him through all the painstaking long-distance phone calls, had been able to watch him at a tournament in China in person. The outcome means she probably won’t have to do so again.
Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy had both played on the main PGA Tour while they were still teenagers. Now, Darlington’s 28-year-old wayfarer enters this season knowing a win could see him playing alongside them.
“It’s a way of life,” he says of the years spent in the Far East. “And I’d recommend it to everyone.”